When Fanboys Attack!

Any moderately successful game will be played and enjoyed by a large number of people. Many of these people, who I will refer to as “normal”, will enjoy the game for what it is, and then put it on their shelf of past experiences and get on with their lives. Others, who I will call “a bit freaky”, might express their deep thoughts about the game on an online or print forum of some kind. But, in the fringes of our existence, out there on the very edge of insanity are those who allow the game to take over part of their consciousness. It becomes like a parasite on their nervous system, and they are henceforth unable to form thoughts that are independent of the game and its world. For these there is a special word in our modern vocabulary. We call these people “fanboys”.

Gaming fanboys have an almost supernatural obsession with detail combined with an irrationally narrow perspective on what I will call canonical correctness. RPGs seem particularly prone to this treatment. Fans of RPGs seem to place the most stringent requirements on what must be present in the gameplay mechanics of any particular title before it is allowed to be called an RPG. Any or all of the following apply:

If you google around, it’s easy to find multiple manifestos about defining a “real” RPG, and they all contain various amounts of blather similar to the list above. You don’t find people this obsessed with the definition of, say, shooters or platformers. There are no earnest thousand word web page postings outlining the acceptable design parameters of a canonically correct Mario game.

Which leads me to the third axis of the fanboy psychology chart. Fanboys crave acceptance, but marginalization drives them. It’s always the fans of the less popular genres that are the most vociferous and bitter. The single player Western style non-fantasy RPG. Adventure games. And so on. No one worries about shooters and platformers and action games because there are more than enough good games in those genres to go around.

But try to find a decent single player RPG that didn’t come from Japan.

Lacking any real games to play, the sad and bitter fanboy can only wallow in nostalgia and replay his favorite game over and over again. Soon, the details of the game are so familiar that it’s as if they were in his own life. Later, the design of the favorite game becomes the canonically correct design for all games of this type. This is where all those crazy rules come from.

In this state of mind, no new game will ever hold up. All the new games are shallow and stupid, with no real “freedom”, or multiple lines of narrative, or worse: real time combat. Never mind that the old games didn’t really have any of this either. The fanboy’s distortion field projects a platonic perfection on their favored game that no actual game can hold a candle to.

This nostalgia-driven delusion can be a problem for the developer of new games in the genre. Oblivion was skewered by the hard core fans of various earlier instances of the Elder Scrolls games because it was not “as perfect” even though it was better in almost every way. Bethsoft has now set themselves up for even more fanboy wrath by taking on the Fallout 3 project. It seems like they have a masochistic streak in them. Anyone building RPGs in the current fan environment either has thick skin or a love of punishment.

But the truth is, the older games were not that great. The sophisticated turn-based statistical combat engines that the dorks love so much are, in fact, simply tedious. The attempt to mimic the table-top combat rules only results in the player falling asleep as she spends another 15 minutes watching virtual dice roll while she kills her 50th giant rat. The games also tend to feature hideously archaic inventory management and other useless gameplay conventions. And, who can forget the endless dialog trees. Sure, there are some exceptions. The wonderful writing and relatively streamlined gameplay in Planescape comes to mind. But if I’m going to back in time and play a retro RPG, I’m more likely to pick up Chrono Trigger on an emulator than try and play Fallout again. At least the combat in Chrono Trigger doesn’t take hours.

In the end, it’s probably best to treat the hard-core genre fan like the crazy uncle that you don’t talk about much. Let them have their community web sites. Let them have their self-important pontifications. Let them vastly overestimate the value and power of their little clique. But in the end, if you are designing a game in their favorite genre, my advice would be to perhaps listen, nod, and then back slowly out the door and go build your game for normal people.